It was one of those normal Monday mornings but I didn’t know it would be a different one. My colleague and I drove down to Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, for the meeting between international donor agencies and the officials of the Federal Ministry of Health who are hosting Mr. Bill Gates-on a 2-day visit to Nigeria to canvas support for the eradication of polio in Nigeria. The roll call included the cream la cream and all who call the shots at the strategic level of health policy making in Nigeria: Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin ( Minister of Health), Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello( Chairperson ,Senate Committee on Health), Hajia Amina Ibrahaim ( Senior Special Assistant to the President on MDGs), Dr . Ali Pate (Executive Director, National Primary Health Care Development Agency), Dr. A. Nasidi (Chairman, Presidential Task Force on Polio Eradication), Prof. Adetokunbo Lucas (Foremost eminent Public Health Professor at Harvard who taught the current Minister of Health at Med school). The international community was represented by the Country Heads of USAID, DFID, JICA, CIDA, World Bank, European Union, WHO, UNDP, UNICEF, Rotary International among others.
The Bornu Hall at Hilton played host to these men and women, and we all sat round the U-shaped table to listen to presentations on the efforts being made at halting the spread of polio among Nigerian children, the challenges and solutions being proffered to address them. Sure the figures are not encouraging as Nigeria is among the only 4 countries in the world that have a large deposit of the wild polio virus, and Nigeria has been ‘exporting’ this deadly virus to other countries within the sub-region. And it was for this reason that Mr. Bill Gates is visiting Nigeria. Yesterday, i.e. Sunday, the 1st of February, 2009, he visited the Sokoto Caliphate and was well received by the Sultan and his cabinet. About 30 trumpeters heralded him to the delight of his entourage. Bill Gates visited Mabera Primary Health Centre, in Sokoto State where he immunized a Nigerian child with the oral polio vaccine as part of the flag off for the first round of Immunization Plus Days (IPDs) for 2009. Interestingly, he observed that the Primary Health Centre had no stock of essential drugs, and was taken aback when he saw midwife go out to buy some drugs for a patient outside the clinic.
I watched Bill Gates with keen interest and wanted to glean a lot from merely observing him. His simplicity awed me. He was dressed in a simple suit, and his brown tie didn’t look much like the product of a top fashion designer. His shoes were simple and not glistening from the work of a shoe-shiner. His address was very apt and he didn’t display the kind of oratory that Americans have popularized in the world of today. He expressed his commitment to help the fight against polio and his speech showed that he had a good grasp of our health situation and how things are run at the national level. I also observed that he is a south paw, and took notes with his left hand as Dr Nasidi, Dr Ali Pate, and Hajia Amina made their presentations; all were in Microsoft Power Point! I watched keenly how a man is watching a presentation being made with a powerful product that his company had produced.
He had no long list of special assistants and sycophants running around to pander to his ego and needs. When he needed a drink, his aid dashed out briefly to get a plastic bottle of diet coke for him from which he took sips. He has this amiable and gentle smile on his face, and when he was offered a Rotary Club-branded yellow face cap, he gladly accepted and wore it to the delight of all in the small hall. I had no camera to take close-up and personal shots of one of the world’s richest man save for a few shots I took with my small mobile phone from where I sat. As this welcome ceremony ended and we broke out for a tea break, I meandered my way to where Bill Gates was exchanging pleasantries with the top dignitaries present. I squeezed myself into the group photos and made sure the camera flash hit and illumined my face when the shutters clicked repeatedly. At least it would be on record that I joined the Country President of Rotary in the picture he took with Bill Gates. But I felt that wasn’t enough to remember today.
When the photo section was over, I walked up to Bill Gates and shook his hands saying; “Welcome to Nigeria”. Yea there were no paparazzi around to take the shot, but it was a dignifying moment to see a great man and shaking his hands, without having to pass through the eye of a needle. His simplicity in any way didn’t mask his greatness and I wonder if the magnitude of his riches has in anyway entered into his head for once as he carried no airs around him. Soon after, he was led to Enugu Hall for another session of meeting with the polio laboratory network, and between 14:00- 15:45, he held a meeting with State Governors to galvanize support for immunization activities in Nigeria during which he promised to donate $500m for polio eradication in Nigeria. And between 15:45 and 16: 30, he rounded up his trip after holding a Press Conference and interaction with the Nigerian media.
One question I’ve asked myself since I left the meeting and went back to my office is: Will Nigeria as it is be able to produce someone in the ilk of Bill Gates? Will our system allow the development of the creative talents and potential in such an individual? Will our poorly managed and weakened health system be able to provide quality services that can prolong the life of that individual? What if the potential Bill Gates of Nigeria are one of those children who are crawling on all-fours because they had polio, or possibly died from measles infection, or maybe their mother/s died from complications of child birth? Stretching it a bit further, will our educational system be able to nurture and groom the intellectual curiosity of the likes of Bill Gates? Will the curriculum be structured in a way that allows a student to pursue the same dream that fuelled Bill Gates’ practical intellectualism? And sadly, will the society be able to forgive, and also support a Harvard University Drop-out like Bill Gates to live his dreams without being permanently tagged as a failure in life? And it is also disheartening that Nigerian Governors as a nation has to depend on the largesse from Bill Gates to support the eradication efforts of polio in their respective states. And I wonder if they would have to depend on another trip by Bill Gates to fix their health delivery system, and also raise improve on the educational infrastructures in their states etc. What a shame to turn us into a beggarly nation when we have more than enough to fix and make our system work.
For those who are in doubt, I actually shook hands with Bill Gates because I wanted to know if his fingers were different from mine. The only difference is in the color of the skin. He is white and I am black. but that’s the only difference I saw. Yes he allowed me to shake his hands and it made me see that a great man is also as ordinary as the seemingly insignificant man who walks on the same streets with great men. I guess the difference is that the great man does something great those impacts on both the great and small. Honestly, I really would like to live, and eventually die as a great man, even in my small little way!